In Greece, eating horta is a way of life. Though their name may literally translate to “weeds,” these wild edibles are considered far from that—they’re valuable delicacies.
Horta is a generic name given to a vast variety of wild greens; some 300 edible species grow here, according to Greek and Mediterranean cuisine expert Diane Kochilas. Each season has its own. Spring brings the greatest abundance of young greens, among them dandelion, grass lily, borage, and wild garlic and leeks. In the summer, you will find plenty of amaranth leaves and purslane; while fall and winter are the seasons for reichardia and wild chicories. You’ll never go hungry feeding off the land.
Passing down ages-old knowledge, grandmothers teach their grandchildren how to forage for horta in the wild, because they know the best grow along mountain slopes and hillsides, in olive groves, and on fertile plateaus. Armed with pocket knives and baskets or tote bags, they hunt for just the right patch of young leaves, teaching the little ones how to discern the edible from the inedible. They cut the greens just above the soil, leaving the roots to allow the plant to regrow, then carry their harvest back home for a feast.
Greeks have been eating horta since ancient times. Rich in vitamins, minerals, and myriad other nutritional benefits, these gifts of the land provided crucial sustenance during the lean, hard years of war.
Now, even supermarkets sell them, alongside cultivated varieties like chard and mustard greens. Still, cultivated horta doesn’t taste like “the real thing”—the wild greens that take their nutrients naturally from the land, rain, wind, and sunshine, without human intervention.
Horta are a staple in Greek households and on taverna menus, with the varieties changing by the season. Whenever I dine out with friends here in Crete, they’ll invariably order a plate—among many others to share.
The most typical preparation is also the simplest, the same regardless of the variety: boiled until tender or still slightly crunchy, then chilled in icy water, drained, and seasoned with salt, good olive oil, and fresh lemon juice. Slightly bitter, with earthy notes, they’re served as is, or with a combo of boiled zucchini, potatoes, and half a lemon. It’s unpretentious, honest food, light and nourishing.
How to Prepare Horta at Home
There are no set-in-stone recipes for horta, nor rules for the varieties you can use. Follow your heart—and whatever seasonal leafy greens are available near you, whether foraged yourself or purchased from your local farmers market.
Even here in Heraklion, on Crete, I don’t forage for my own greens. I go to mom-and-pop mini markets whose owners are more than happy to recommend their freshly foraged finds, and repeat over and over how to cook them: wash thoroughly, discarding the water several times, then boil, drain, let it cool. Season with salt, drizzle with a generous amount of olive oil and freshly squeezed lemon juice, and serve.
The most challenging part of the process is the cleaning. It may take up to half an hour to pick out the dead leaves, grass, twigs, and dirt from the horta. As Nefteria, the owner of a mini-market across the road, always tells me, “Wash, wash, wash!” It’s sweet how she repeats it every time, although I know it; it feels maternal.
As simple as the preparation is, there are some tricks to making horta enjoyable, to tame their bitter taste.
At the family-owned taverna To Mourelo tou Ladomenou in Galatas, a small inland village in Heraklion, chef Grigoris Koudounas always has seasonal horta on the menu. It is never bitter.
“Change the water a couple of times when you boil them,” he told me. “You must cool the horta in ice-cold water every time you change the boiling water, to maintain the vibrant green of the plants.” I know his trick now—I’ll cook better.
There’s also more to horta than boiling: The greens can instead be sautéed in olive oil, as in horta tsigarista, or baked into a phyllo-crusted pie, called hortopita. Still, I prefer boiled horta, the easiest and simplest way to prepare them. If you are fully committed to the horta lifestyle, and the traditional resourceful, no-waste spirit it embodies, don’t discard the broth from the last boil. I dare you to drink it—it’s like an earthy-bitter, medicinal, herbal tea.
Horta Vrasta (Greek Boiled Greens)
You can prepare this dish with any type of seasonal wild greens: dandelion greens, shepherd’s purse, purslane, mustard greens, spiny chicory, amaranth leaves, and the list goes on. If you cannot find wild greens, you can use cultivated varieties such as kale, spinach, frisée, or collard greens.
Serve the boiled and dressed greens as is, or for a boost, add a topping of feta or tomato-feta sauce.
- 1 pound wild greens (horta)
- Salt to taste
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Wash the horta thoroughly in plenty of water, repeating several times, to remove any impurities.
Bring a large pot of water to a boil, then blanch the horta briefly. Drain through a colander, discarding the liquid. Cool the horta in ice-cold water, which will help maintain its vibrant green color.
Repeat this blanch-drain-cool process two more times, using a fresh pot of water each time. This will reduce the bitterness of the horta.
Bring another pot of water to a boil, and cook the horta for about 10 minutes, or until soft, if you don’t like it a bit crunchy. Remove from heat, drain through a colander (if you want, keep the broth to drink), and cool in ice-cold water.
Drain again, then plate and serve seasoned with salt to taste and generous drizzles of olive oil and freshly-squeezed lemon juice.
A former military journalist, Mihaela Lica-Butler is a senior partner at Argophilia Travel News. Besides her work as a PR pro and travel journalist, she spends her time writing children’s fairy tales and cookbooks.